Sometimes the things I discuss in this forum I’ve provided myself are grand sweeping ideas whose larger implications have bearing on the lives of millions. Sometimes what I say offends as many people and that cannot be helped. An opinion coated in the proverbial sugar of polite discourse often loses its true meaning and purpose. You will find that meaning is a central topic in these installments of my life in Japan’s capital, and I will not have mine misconstrued on account of false niceties. What you read here is as real as it gets, even if some people might be better off were it not so.
As it happens, I would like to talk about something that does affect millions of people although arguably it is not a grand nor sweeping idea. As I have said, vending machines are everywhere in Japan. They line street corners, office hallways, and serve all manner of things from refreshments to cigarettes and used underwear, the latter for which there shall be a ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ policy so long as I have anything to say about it. As it happens, the vast majority of vending machines dispense far less objectionable goods – drinks being the most common. As many of you know and all of you have been told, Japan is an expensive place to live. Within Japan, Tokyo reigns supreme as the very costliest place to live, and why should the vending machines not add to this financial burden. The average price of a can of soda (that would be 12oz worth of refreshment, or 330ml for those of you who attended a real school) is 120 Yen. At the time of writing one dollar is worth incrementally less than 95 Yen, making a can of soda, chilled to perfection and dispensed with a due amount of tumbling and shaking, $1.26. As my American friends will tell you, the same soda can be had at Walmart, in the gallon variety, for roughly the same price. There being 128 delicious ounces in a gallon, and there being 12 ounces in a can, we can thus deduce, using the skills honed during twelve years of forced mathematics classes, that we are getting ripped off at a 1000% mark-up of value, assuming Walmart breaks even (which it doesn’t). Why then, you ask, are vending machines so popular? Why do we, the consumers, tolerate such blatant piracy of our wallets? I do not know. That is to say, I know why I think we tolerate it, but then I am not an expert on things like finance, economy, markets, and other dreadfully boring subjects I had no intention of studying when I was picking colleges, but have obvious bearing on this conundrum. However, as I am not burdened with the pre-dertermined notions of authors and teachers with a background, and interest in these subjects, I feel I am uniquely qualified to tackle this from the perspective of Joe Everyman – let’s call him, Bob.
Bob walks to work every day and being a middle-aged man, slightly on the chubby side courtesy of a well-paying job and an abundance of restaurants matched no other place on earth, he quickly becomes thirsty. The weather, as is customary for this time of year is well in the 90s (or 32 degrees for those of you who like systems of measurement based on sense and logic as a farely obscure yet immortalized Swedish astronomer once did named Anders Celcius) and so Bob’s body is sweating through his blue-collar shirt. Bob decides that the less-than-subtle vending machines which line his path at alarmingly regular intervals are there for a reason, as he dives into his pocket for some spare change. Moments later, as he comes up wielding a fist full of coins, and is about to avail himself of one of the myriad of drinks at his fingertips, he halts and reconsiders. His weary brow crumples into a frown as the math skills which he uses every day to put together very convincing charts for his superiors, are put to the test in a more productive manner. Bob completes in moments the calculations I have jotted down above. Bob is not amused. Bob thinks spending $1.26 on a can of soda when for the same money an enormous bottle can be had is the very definition of lunacy, and an affront to men of reason. Bob’s cholesterol-lined arteries bulge as his blood pressure spikes. The beads of sweat on his forehead become torrents of liquid rage. “I must have soda!” the primordial man in the back of Bob’s mind could be heard to shout. “But I will be dead before I pay a penny more than a buck for a can of Coke!” the investment banker side of him interjects. Bob now faces an obstacle whose ramifications are larger than whether or not he gets ripped off for a can of soda. Bob much now choose between being part of the problem by perpetuating a contemptible status quo or rising up against ‘The Man,’ and demanding justice for the voiceless masses, the consumers on which faceless conglomerates build their empires of sin. To Bob, this matter has become about more than 120 Yen and a can of soda – it has become a matter of conscience, respect, and the voice of the little man, ever drowned-out by the steady hum of an army of air conditioners, fighting to keep cool the frantically working slaves of his new nemesis: capitalism Inc.
Bob’s vengeance is swift. Instead of dutifully dropping his coins into the slot of no return, Bob lashes out at the machine with a curled fist. Fueled by rage and disbelief man and machine meet in an unusual way. Sadly, adding insult to injury (or rather the other way around), Bob loses this particular interaction and pays for it not with a free can of soda to quench his thirst, but with a sprained wrist and red-glowing knuckles. Bob forgot that ‘The Man’ knows he is ripping him off, so he had his engineers build vending machines that could withstand the frustrations of the masses. ‘The man’ can afford to – he’s making he’s making a killing on each can.
Disheartened, beaten, Bob – his thirst tragically unsatiated – resumes his trudge to work, his final thought bringing him only more stinging pain. Bob works in an office tower just like this one, and he too slaves away for ‘The Man.’
So what, you ask, was the point of all of that? Well, I say, it is quite simple. Bob represents common sense (save for the pounding on the vending machine – which is something we’d all like to give a whirl but do not for various reasons). Bob’s reaction to finding out he is being tilled for 10 times the worth of a product is about equivalent to the reaction we all have, save for we do not show it. The sad truth of it is that we are all quite accustomed to being ripped off. In fact, we are so accustomed to being ripped off that when and if we notice, we shrug such observations off as inconsequential as we, all of us but mere mortals, are powerless to change the facts. Knowing me as most of you do you also know I cannot forever be one of these people. The bitter injustice of having to pay 120 (and in some cases 150!) Yen for a can of soda ruins for me the sweet taste of a liquid which is 30% sugar. Each sip brings me physical pain as with it I swallow the crap of the corporate leeches whose prices I accept under the assumption that theirs is the kingdom, and I am not its King. Again I digress. Ironically my problem is not that a can of soda must cost a dollar twenty six. My problem is not capitalism, or the fact that a can of soda, in the course of being brought to my fingertips at all but the furthest reaches of civilization for utmost convenience, must incur certain additional costs along the way. Nay, my problem lies with all of you. It is the indifference of man to which I take exception. The apathy with which we allow ourselves to be seduced by false promises, and the same apathy we exhibit when we find out we were lied to. People laugh when my anger surfaces, my sincerity mistaken for sarcasm, as my friends laugh when they should cry. “He is being funny… ha ha!” – no, he’s not, and I’m not laughing. I am going to have to side with Bob on this one, albeit it for alternate reasons, sometimes it takes a can of soda to realize all is not well in the world, and we are complacent in its state.
We need not be distraught however. What is the significance of a can of soda in the grande scheme of things? Let us move on. It will not have escaped many of you that I am not merely squatting in Tokyo because rent is so cheap here. No, I am in fact enrolled in a language school, attempting on a daily basis to learn a language spoken only here. Nevertheless, undaunted, I have cast myself off the proverbial ledge and taken the plunge. I am now a student of Japanese.
The first thing I must tell you is that the Japanese language, in the eyes of those of us having not previously studied Yoda-esque grammar can be very confusing and difficult to comprehend. This is undoubtedly due to the manner in which our brains associate words with meaning, and the Japanese do not usually mean what they say to be taken literally. Theirs is a culture of omission and insinuation, leaving key things unsaid so as not to offend or be too demanding. This cultural difference creates enormous gaps in understanding with westerners, and flagrant (though entirely unintentional) disrespect vice versa. Attempting to directly translate and subsequently transcribe what is said into English can make for some colorful sentences indeed. The Japanese for example say: 窓をあけます (mado o akemasu) which means to say: “the current condition of the window is one of openness most likely induced by a person who may or may not have been myself.” In contrast, 窓があけます(mado ga akemasu) more closely means: “the current condition of the window is one of openness but I am unsure who, if anyone was involved in this change of condition OR the person who opened the window has left the room, AND/OR was engaged in the act of opening the window some time ago.” Without further ado, let us forget this unpleasantness and move on.
In Japanese it is possible to know the meaning of every word in a sentence and not know what is being said. To my knowledge, this is a unique quality for a language to have, but can be readily explained. When learning a new language our brains associated new words presented to us with meaning already available to us. This meaning in turn usually has a label, or word, with which it is associated, be that in our native tongue or other languages we may speak. Thus it is only natural, in the beginning at least, for our brains to attempt to translate what we hear into another language in which we feel more comfortable. For the purpose of what I am writing here, let us assume this language to be English. The Japanese, having no love of foreign languages (or so it seems), have outlawed the speaking of other languages in their language schools for this very reason – attempting to translate what is being said in Japanese to any other language is an exercise in futility. Thus my class has become a theatre where material is presented, left entirely unexplained, and compounded in its difficulty by teachers whose repoire with the students is as lacking as their will to explain the material. In other words, my class time dictates what new and incomprehensible grammar I will have to teach myself later in the privacy of my own room. Essentially then I feel like I am paying money to have some old lady give me hours worth of homework after depriving me of three hours of my life a day. Endlessly beseeching us to “please remember” whenever new material is presented is a poor substitute for teaching understanding of the material. My teachers seem to misunderstand the relation speaking has to memory – more is needed than a mere glance or call for knowledge to be attained and demonstrated in true understanding. In addition, (and I believe H.H.Williams said it best), “furious activity is no substitute for understanding.” Though Japanese women in particular are able to use intonation and extremes of pitch to help fill in for the words they do not say, I have trouble reading between the lines in spite of their efforts. My teachers too attempt to convey complex concepts with sherades and intonation, but fail more often than they succeed.
What is worse is that the obvious and growing disdain and blank stares from her audience have not challenged her to change her ways. This means she either does not realize she is not reaching her audience or, in stereotypical Japanese fashion, it simply has not occurred to her to deviate from the accepted norm – her lesson plan – a manner of instruction bearing only a passing resemblance to teaching.
Why then, my critics will argue, do Japanese people score so well across the board in international education tests? Simply, the desire to question authority and the ability to form unique thoughts (God forbid wrong ones), are never instilled in Japanese students. A goal is set, a course devised to get there, and there ends the average thought process that I have encountered here. Questioning authority, much less standing up to it, is simply a faux pas that means both social and professional doom. It is not done. Thus I find myself in enemy territory, surrounded on all sides by those who do not wish to know the why and how. At times, this is unbearable.
Sadly, the manner in which my classes continue to be conducted leaves much to be desired in the way of understanding. Having been in Tokyo now for four months I had hoped to be able to talk about a few things with relative, albeit elementary, eloquence. I was to be disappointed. It feels as though my ability to express myself has been amputated, and in a place where once there was understanding an imaginary limb flails wildly, refusing to believe it is no longer there.
My teachers meanwhile, and my host mother besides, fail to understand why I am learning their native tongue so slowly. Unrealistic expectations combined with poor instruction are the primary culprits, leading to a gap in understanding that cannot be bridged by any amount of studying.
I do not want to, nor can I launch into an obliterating review of the Japanese educational system however. I have thus far sampled only one school, and as such it would not be fair to conclude or even suggest that all instruction in Japan is flawed (not to mention it obviously work for the Japanese), but lest mine eyes and ears deceive me, most of my observations are tragically accurate. There remains a fundamental shortcoming in the manner in which the Japanese teach and, overtly of subversively, it is not being addressed. The reverence is which the status quo is held is holding Japan, and all its citizens, back from attainting their potential. A potential that lies at dizzying heights.
One of the more unfortunate changes most evident in modern Tokyo is the lack of daily reverence for the rich historical heritage of the city, the nation, and its people. In Kyoto the link to the old, the ancestry of more than just people and places, is evident wherever you may turn to look. When I visited the pearl fishermen of the southern islands, their techniques had not changed in 100 years, and neither had their love of the sea. Tokyo then stands out as a modern city whose ties to its past are slowly disappearing in a jungle of concrete and fluorescent lights. It is not all gone however. Every so often, when I roam aimlessly through small side streets, and venture off my usual routes into places I have not yet explored, it is possible to come across old shrines, graveyards, and temples – some in appalling states of disrepair. I cherish such moments, and such finds, because to me the magic of Japan has not been completely lost. Cats lie sprawled in the sun without a care in the world, safe in the knowledge that near temples they will not be harassed by noisy children or Chinese chefs. Zen Buddhist and Shinto prayers flutter gently in the breeze, written on rice paper, and tied to branches of bamboo trees. These peaceful havens are like islands of tranquility in an ocean of madness. Small pockets of reality in a world that becomes increasingly unreal. Whenever I stumble across one, I bow my head, fold my hands together, and thank the keepers of these places for keeping them.
Similarly, Japanese traditional garb (the Yukata, straw hats, gi, and Kimono) are becoming more rare. Shops still exhibit and display them in both modern and traditional designs and patterns, albeit at steep prices. The fashion sense of young people in Tokyo varies wildly but in many cases borders on the ridiculous. Outlandish hair-dos and mix and match clothing styles are combined into odd outfits and the streets are filled with all manner of clichés and fashion faux pas. There are times though when there is a real resurgence in kimono-clad women scuttling about on the streets – mostly during traditional festivals. Yesterday was one such festival. Fireworks (hanabi) are extremely popular in Japan and for such occasions people seem happy if not eager to don their most colorful traditional wear. I revel in such moments as I enjoy the aesthetic beauty of kimonos, as well as the significance of having traditional garb stand the test of time. Sadly, as western-style wedding become ever more popular with the young people of Japan the beautiful traditional ceremony may be a sight I never get to see up close. Still, when Japanese men and women put their mind to it and walk the streets finely robed and with an air of certainty about them it is easy to see why so many people refuse to let the old traditions die – some are simply too good to be lost.